The Gulf is Crossed

9.25.22 homily on Luke 16:19-31 by Pastor Galen

Virtual Afterlife?

In recent years there have been a spate of TV shows that imagine or reimagine life after death. One such show, entitled Upload, is a science fiction comedy-drama which imagines a sort of dystopian future where the family members of people who pass away can pay to upload their deceased relative’s consciousness into a digital afterlife.

The show centers around 27-year-old computer programmer Nathan Brown, who is mortally wounded and subsequently uploaded after his self-driving car malfunctions and crashes. Nathan Brown wasn’t necessarily the most morally upstanding person on earth, but his girlfriend was quite well off, and so she was able to pay to upload his consciousness into one of the more luxurious digital afterlifes, the Lakeview Resort.

One of the many problems with the virtual afterlife depicted in Upload is that the quality of someone’s virtual life after death is dependent on how much money or resources they or their family members have on earth. Every amenity at the Lakeview Resort comes at an additional charge, and so friends and family members still living on earth are frequently asked to pay extra to give their deceased family members additional levels of enjoyment. On the other hand, if the family members residing on earth forget or neglect to pay the monthly charges, then their relatives at Lakeview may find themselves downgraded and living in much less luxurious circumstances, or even frozen in a “limbo” state until more money is added to their account.

Fortunately Upload is fictional, and merely a figment of the writers’ imaginations, because this does not sound like the sort of eternity any of us would hope for. And yet the writers of Upload have not been the first to imagine that people who are wealthy or powerful or famous in this life will probably be treated better in the world to come. Even in Jesus’s day, there was a misconception that those who are wealthy in this world are more blessed or favored by God, and so it would follow that they would hold a more prominent place in heaven.  

Jesus’s parable in Luke 16:19-31 about the rich man and Lazarus counters this common misperception – illustrating that it is not how much money or wealth or power or prestige we have in this life that will matter in eternity, but rather it is our priorities on this earth that matter – where we place our faith and trust and hope, and what we do with the resources we have been given in this life that will make a difference in eternity.

The Nature of Parables

So let’s dig into this parable – as difficult as it may be for us to sift through – and see what lessons we might draw from it. But before we do, we must remember that the purpose of parables was often to convey a singular truth. Not every detail in every parable was intended to accurately describe the way things are or will be. I don’t believe, for example, that the people who are eternally separated from God will be able to look across a chasm and see those who are resting eternally in God’s presence. But Jesus often used storylines and tropes that were common in his day as a way to connect with his audience.

And so, as we analyze this parable, we should be looking for the one or two key takeaways – the main points – rather than seeing this as a detailed or comprehensive description of the afterlife. 

The Rich Man and Lazarus

And so the curtain opens, as it were, on a wealthy man who is depicted as wearing expensive garments and feasting lavishly every day. The term “conspicuous consumption” comes to mind. Meanwhile, right outside the walls of his gated compound lived a poor and sickly man by the name of Lazarus, a name that means “God will help.” 

The wealthy man must have been aware of Lazarus’s presence, and even knew him by name, as we find out later in the parable. It’s not difficult to imagine that the wealthy man was even annoyed by Lazarus’s presence, since he must have had to step over him every time he went in and out of his gate. But he refused to help Lazarus – refusing even to allow Lazarus to gather the crumbs that fell from his table. I imagine the wealthy man muttering under his breath every time he went out of his gate and passed by Lazarus, shaking his head and saying – “Lazarus – ‘God will help.’ Humph! God helps those who help themselves.” 

I’m sure that the wealthy man found many ways to justify his own refusal to help Lazarus. Perhaps he believed that if Lazarus had simply worked as hard as he had, or if he had only made better choices earlier in his life, then surely he wouldn’t have ended up in this predicament. Just as wealthy people were often thought to be highly favored by God in those days, so too it was often believed that the poor were to blame for their own impoverished states.

Interestingly enough, both Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus, who had been destitute in this life, was “carried away by angels” (Luke 16:22) and taken to heaven, where he enjoyed the company of Abraham and all the righteous who had gone before. The wealthy man, on the other hand, who had lived a life of luxury and ease on earth – finds himself in a place of torment – so miserable that he begged Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drop of cold water to quench his thirst.

Abraham pointed out that there was a great chasm between Lazarus and the wealthy man, and there was no way that he could receive mercy at the hand of Lazarus – or from Abraham for that matter. The time for giving and receiving mercy had ended. The wealthy man, who had refused to show mercy to Lazarus when he had the chance, could not be shown mercy now. It was too late, and there was nothing that could be done about it. 

The wealthy man suggested, then, that perhaps Lazarus could go back and warn the wealthy man’s five brothers – who were most likely living a life of luxury and ease and withholding their gifts to the poor as well. But Abraham counters that the man’s five brothers had been warned by the words of Moses and the prophets all throughout Scripture. If they refused to heed the warnings of the prophets, just as the wealthy man himself had done, then surely they would refuse to change their ways even if someone rose from the dead and told them to repent.

Jesus Crossed the Great Divide

Jesus’s parable about the rich man and Lazarus does many things. One of which is to counter the notion that those with wealth and power and resources in this life will automatically be given a prominent position in heaven.  The original hearers of this parable, who believed that wealth was tangible proof that God had smiled upon someone, would have been surprised to hear of a wealthy man who didn’t even make it into heaven.  

Just as surprising, perhaps, would have been the notion that someone like Lazarus, who had no doubt been passed by and disregarded by many people (not just the wealthy man in this story), is given a name, and a place of honor in this story, and that in the parable he is rewarded with heavenly riches.

This parable is a reminder that this life is not all there is. That even if we do not have much in this life, if we put our faith and trust in Christ, we will be blessed to be in God’s presence for all eternity, and we will have wealth and riches untold. On the other hand, this parable should be taken as a warning, a cautionary tale that our ultimate goal is this life should not be to gain or maintain wealth or status or prestige or power on this earth, but rather to be good stewards of what we have been given – using what we have for the good of God’s kingdom, and sharing freely with those who are in need. 

This does not mean, of course, that we can do enough good works to enter heaven on our own merit, any more than we can buy our way into heaven with money or wealth. Rather, it is only through placing our faith and trust in the mercy of Christ that we can be saved. Christ’s death on the cross bridged the chasm separating us from God. The cross formed a bridge, making it possible for us to cross over into eternal life with God – no matter our station in this life, no matter how many times we’ve failed or fallen short.

Through his death and resurrection Jesus defeated the power of sin and death and hell and the grave, freeing us from the power of sin, opening the door for us to have eternal life with God through Christ Jesus.

As recipients of so great a mercy, we are called to extend that same mercy to others, and to use the resources we have been given to point others to the love and grace of mercy of God, extended freely to all.

How Should We Then Live?

This week as I’ve been mulling over the implications of this parable for my own life and for the life of our church and community, I couldn’t ignore the reality that here in our own community there are people who lack the basic necessities of life, and that across the street from our church there are people living in tents. Frequently people even camp out on the porch of our church to escape the wind and rain and elements.

This begs the question – especially for those of us who identify more with the rich man in this story than with Lazarus in that we have our basic needs met and more to spare – how should we then live? Are we called to help each and every one person we encounter who asks us for money or who seems to be in need?

Last week I pointed out that giving our tithes and offerings to the church is one way that we collectively respond to the needs around us. None of us individually can meet each and every need of every person in our surrounding community, but as we pool our resources together, giving of our time, our talents, and our treasures, and as we make decisions together as a community about how to respond to the needs around us, we work together to fulfill the Great Commission and the mandate we have been given to help those in need.

But I believe this parable also challenges those of us who relate to the rich man in this story that there are times when we have the opportunity and resources to help someone in need, and in those situations we can and should do so. Now, as a caveat, I don’t think we always have to give someone exactly what they ask for. Sometimes it does. If someone is dying of thirst and they ask you for a drink of water then absolutely, if you have within your power to give them water, you should. 

But there are other times when someone asks for money, but what they really need is a job or opportunity. In my own life, as I’ve gotten to know people who are struggling with various addictions or needs that were far beyond my control, I’ve at the very least offered to help try and connect them with someone who can help them get access to the help or resources they need. For example, I’ve frequently offered to drive someone to Helping Up Mission if they are interested in enrolling in the program there. I’ve also reached out on behalf of our church to the Mayor’s office and connected with their department of homeless outreach to try to gain services for the people living in the park across the street. And although I personally have made it a habit not to wake someone from their sleep when they are sleeping peacefully on our church’s porch (unless we have an event that is about to start), I have usually tried to connect with them after they wake up to see what sorts of help or medical attention they might need. 

I realize, of course, that we all have different amounts of time, and resources, and opportunities, and we’re not all called to minister to others in the same way. But it is important to recognize that so often we are more like the rich man in this story than we care to admit, and that what we do or don’t do with the resources we have been given in this life does matter – not only in this world, but in the world to come. 

I for one am grateful that our eternal destiny does not depend on the wealth or power or even the level of good works that we’ve achieved in this life, but solely on the mercy and grace of God. Let us give God praise for the mercy God has bestowed upon us, and let us steward the resources we have been given in ways that extend God’s mercy and love to those around us.

Amen.

Monopoly

September 18th, 2022 homily on Luke 16:1-13 by Pastor Galen

Monopoly

Growing up, my brother and I frequently played the game Monopoly. My mother said she could always tell when we were playing Monopoly because the game always ended with one of us in tears. (As the younger brother, it was usually me). I’ve played the game with friends and college students in more recent years, and learned that Monopoly is one of the most effective ways to test the limits of a friendship or relationship.

What many people don’t know is that the game Monopoly was not originally developed to be fun or entertaining. Rather, it was based off of The Landlord’s Game, an educational tool developed in 1903 by American anti-monopolist, feminist, and author Lizzie Magie, who invented the game as a way to demonstrate the negative effects of an economic system where wealth is concentrated in the hands of only a few, rather than an economic system that promotes the flourishing of the whole society. 

In other words, Magie’s game was intended to evoke frustration by helping people understand what it’s like to become trapped in cycles of poverty and indebtedness. The goal was to encourage people to face the realities of economic injustice in our society and world, and to work for justice and equality. (It’s a sad irony of history that someone else essentially stole and profited off of the game Monopoly, and that Magie herself did not receive recognition as the inventor of the game until many years after she passed away!)

The Israelite prophets also sought to highlight the injustices inherent in a society where the rich continued to get richer, and the poor continued to get poorer. The prophet Amos railed against the wealthy who trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land (Amos 8:4).

And it is with this prophetic tradition in the background that Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a manager who was dishonest, was accused of mismanaging his supervisor’s property, and yet is described as someone who acted shrewdly.

An Unlikely Hero

Now it may surprise us that Jesus would cast a character like this as the hero of his parable. But we should remember that the goal of Jesus’s parables was not that we should emulate ever characteristic of everyone in the parable. Rather, parables, like the game that became Monopoly, were for the purpose of teaching a lesson, or to illustrate a point. 

Many parables follow the “how much greater” formula that was popular in Jewish prophetic literature. The formula goes like this: If a certain thing is true, much more is this other thing true?

This formula is implied in Jesus’s parable about the dishonest manager, where he suggests that if “the children of this age” are wise in the way they deal with the stuff of this earth, then how much more wise (or “shrewd”) should we as Christ’s followers be in our dealings with earthly matters in the light of eternity?

So let’s dig into this parable and see what lessons we might learn from it. 

The Dishonest Manager

The curtain opens on a manager who was in charge of a wealthy man’s property. Charges were brought against the manager that he was squandering his supervisor’s property. Wasting money was a serious offense, especially when it involved someone else’s money, and particularly when the point of your job was to maintain and increase the wealth of the person for whom you worked! And so even the suggestion that the manager was squandering his supervisor’s property spelled the end of this man’s career.

It’s not clear whether the charges were true, and if true, whether or not the manager had been intentionally or unintentionally squandering his supervisor’s property. But what is clear is that when the manager discovered he was going to be fired, his brain kicked into overdrive, and he began to scheme up ways that he could ensure his own financial security after he was no longer employed.

The plan he eventually hit upon, which ended up working out quite well for him, was to go around to each of the people who owed his boss money, and to decrease the balance due on their loans.

One man owed his boss 100 jugs of olive oil, and the man said, “now you only owe 50.” another owed his boss 100 containers of wheat, and the man said, “change it to 80.”

It would be like your loan officer coming to you and saying, “I know you still owe $100,00 on your mortgage – but now you only owe $80,000.” Or, “I know you still have $120,000 left on your school loans, but let’s just change that to $50,000 instead.” You probably wouldn’t ask a lot of questions, would you? You would accept the gracious decrease in your indebtedness. And the same was true with the wealthy man’s debtors.

Now it’s possible that the manager’s purpose here was two-fold – (1) hurting his boss, while (2) at the same time ingratiating himself into the favor of each of his boss’s debtors so that they would look out for him when he was no longer employed. 

It’s also possible that he simply decreased their debts by the percentage that would have typically been his commission – which he wouldn’t have received anyway since he was no longer employed. 

But whatever purpose he had in doing this, and whatever rules he broke or didn’t break, even his former employer had to admit that what he had done was quite brilliant, whether or not it was ethical.

Using Worldly Wealth in Light of Eternity

Jesus concludes this parable with several comments. Number one – he points out that the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. (The children of this age seems to refer to people who are not religious, or at least not followers of Christ, whereas the children of light seems to refer to faithful worshippers –  perhaps Christ’s followers).

Secondly, Jesus tells us to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9).

Thirdly, Jesus tells us that whoever is faithful in little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in very little is dishonest also in much (16:11). 

And lastly, he reminds us that no one can serve two masters. We cannot serve God and wealth (16:13).

And so what is the point of all of this? What can we take away from this passage?

Much ink has been spilled over this particular parable and trying to explain exactly how these statements hang together. In some ways they seem to be a loose collection of statements about money and finances, rather than one consistent logical argument.

But the overall question this parable addresses is how we interact with money and physical possessions – the stuff of this earth – in light of eternity. And Jesus tells us that we should use our money and resources to make friends.

Now, many of us probably know someone who tries to “buy briends,” by buying them things or always paying their way so that the other person will constantly be indebted to them. This is not, I believe, what Jesus is telling us to do. The point is not to make people indebted to us, to keep a tally of how many good things we’ve done for other people and how much they owe us in return.

Rather, I believe that Jesus is asking us to live in the light of eternity, and to use our earthly possessions in such a way that would positively affect eternity.

We know, of course, that we came into this world with nothing, and we will leave with nothing. But I do believe that the friendships and relationships we’ve made along the way will last forever. The people that we’ve known and loved here in this life, the people who love us – I believe that we’ll know them in eternity as well. Our friends and loved ones will remember us, and the time and resources that we put into developing relational connections with people here on this earth will carry over into eternity.

Growing up I used to believe that if I did a good deed on this earth I would get an extra jewel in my crown in heaven – sort of like the stickers or stars that my teachers used to give out for good behavior when I was in elementary school. I don’t know if that’s what it will be like in Heaven – but even if we do get crowns with stars in them, I’m sure we will lay our crowns down at the feet of Jesus when we get to heaven and see and experience his glory and splendor. 

I don’t think we are to make friends in this life in order to get an extra jewel in our crown in heaven. But I do believe that Jesus is encouraging us to use the resources that we have been given here in this life not just for our own good, but to bless others, and to help others flourish – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Working for the Good of All

At the beginning of this message I told the story of Lizzie Magie’s teaching tool, The Landlord Game, which was the precursor to our game Monopoly. What I didn’t mention is that when Magie developed the game, she developed two different sets of rules. 1 was the current version that we play – where the goal is to create monopolies and crush your opponents. But the other version was an anti-monopolist version in which everyone was rewarded when wealth was created. It seems that Magie wanted to help people see and experience how much better it is when we work for the good of all in society, rather than everyone looking out for our own interests at the expense of others.

In many ways, that’s what we do when we give our tithes and offerings. We’re giving away at least some of our wealth in order to work for the flourishing of all in our world and in our society. 

Looking around us we see so many needs. We see people who are hungry or homeless. We see people who lack the basic necessities of life. We see people who are caught in cycles of despair or addiction. We see people who are lonely, who are longing for community. We see spiritual needs as well – people who do not know the hope and love and joy that Christ brings. 

There’s no way that any of us could individually meet all those needs. And so many people in our world just throw up their hands and say, “well then, I’m just going to look out for myself and my family.” But tithing and giving money to the church is one way that we commit to work together for the good of all – not just those inside the church, but those outside as well. It’s one way that we commit together to use our worldly wealth to positively affect eternity. 

So let us renew our commitment to live in the light of eternity – to use our world wealth and resources in a way that would bring about good not just in this life, but also in the life to come. May we be found faithful in the little that we have, so that we may be entrusted with much, and may we love and serve God above all else. Amen.

Seek the Shalom of the City

September 11th, 2022 homily on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 by Pastor Galen

Gilligan’s Island

The 1960’s American sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” followed the comedic adventures of seven castaways who were shipwrecked on a deserted island following what was originally supposed to be a only 3-hour tour. The castaways included the ship’s skipper and his first mate, Gilligan, a millionaire and his wife, a movie star, a professor, and a young woman named Mary Anne. The passengers had set forth from a tropic port aboard a tiny ship when rough weather caused their ship to be tossed to and fro, and eventually run aground on an uncharted desert isle. 

While neither the passengers nor the crew had ever imagined that they would find themselves living on a deserted island, as the longer version of the theme song told us, “they’re here for a long, long time, they’ll have to make the best of things. It’s an uphill climb.” Indeed, throughout the 3 seasons of the show, the castaways continued to look for ways to escape the island and return home. But as it gradually began to sink in that they would be there for a while, they began to settle in and make the best of things. After Gilligan and the skipper’s attempt to leave the island using a makeshift raft failed in the first episode, by the second episode the castaways were making huts to protect themselves from the impending storms – and they began to make themselves at home on the island.

Unlike the passengers and crew of the S.S. Minnow in Gilligan’s Island, the Jewish people living in Babylon in Jeremiah’s day had not yet come to the realization that they would be there for a long long time, and that they too would have to make the best of things. No doubt when they were forcibly removed from their homeland of Judea, they thought it would only be a few weeks, or months, or maybe a couple years until they would be allowed to return home. Indeed they wanted nothing more than to return home. Back to their friends and neighbors and loved ones. Back to their fields and farms and city. Back to the temple in Jerusalem where they loved to go and worship. Back to everything they had ever known and held dear.

Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles in Babylon

And yet, the prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles living in Babylon telling that indeed it would be a long long time, and in essence that they would have to make the best of things.

Jeremiah wrote, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).

Now instructions were shocking to the people in Babylon. The instructions indicated that they would not just be there for a few weeks or months or years, but for generations! Build houses and plant gardens? Get married and have children? Give your children away in marriage? These are activities that stretch out over the course of many years!  And indeed we find out a few verses later that it would be at least 70 years until the first of the exiles began to return home (Jeremiah 29:10). And so indeed the Jewish people living in Babylon would have to make the best of things. And like the castaways living on Gilligan’s Island, it would be an uphill climb.

Settle In – it’s Going to Be a While

But there’s another reason why Jeremiah’s instructions to the Jewish people living in Babylon would have come as a shock. Jeremiah told the people to “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). Or in Hebrew, seek the shalom of the city…because in it’s shalom, you too will find shalom.

The word “shalom” or “peace” here refers not just to the absence of violence, but also wholeness, rightness. It’s the state of everything being as it should be, nothing broken or lacking or missing. And Jeremiah says that if you seek that type of peace, if you work for the good of the whole community, then you too will experience shalom. Peace. Wholeness. And so Jeremiah says to seek the peace of the city. For if it prospers, you too will prosper.

The instructions that they would work for the good of the Babylonian society – the very people who had forcibly removed them from their homeland and compelled them to march hundreds of miles to a place they had never even seen before – would have sounded absurd. They wanted nothing more than to work for the destruction of Babylon so that they could be free to go back home.

And yet Jeremiah makes the case that the fate of their people was inextricably linked to that of the people of Babylon, and that working for their own good involved working for the flourishing of the whole society in which they lived – and that included even their enemies, and the people they didn’t get along with. Just like the people castaway on Gilligan’s island – despite their very different temperaments and personalities and their various roles and stations in life back home, there in Babylon – as on Gilligan’s Island, they would have to learn to live and work together if they wanted to survive. 

Seeking the Shalom of the City

Some of us have perhaps found ourselves in a place we never would have imagined. Working a job we never expected, attending a school we never expected. In a living situation we never expected to find ourselves in. Perhaps you had dreams or goals that just didn’t pan out. Or perhaps the circumstances of life just took you in a different direction than you ever would have expected. And the question is, do you just try to endure and get through it? Or do you settle down and try to make the best of things?

Of course, there are times when we find ourselves in a situation that is toxic for us, and we must do anything within our power to escape. There are times we must quit, or walk away, or resign, or even flee if necessary. 

But there are other times when we are given the assurance that God has us right where we are for a reason. And in those situations we find ourselves with a choice – do we just simply seek to cope or endure? Or do we work for the good and flourishing of the company we work for, the school we attend, or the community we live in?

Earlier this week I saw a post on Facebook that said something to the effect of, “No matter how much playing time you get on the field – play your heart out. Your coach will notice.” And then it said, “Even if you spend the whole game on the bench, cheer your heart out. Your coach will notice that too.” 

That image epitomizes to me the idea of Jeremiah’s message to the exiles in Babylon. Even if you don’t get any playing time on the field, rather than spending your time on the bench sulking because you’re not out there playing, cheer on those who are – because if the team prospers, you too will prosper.

Pray for your Enemies

In addition to Jeremiah’s instructions to the people to plant gardens and build houses and seek the peace and prosperity of the city of Babylon, Jeremiah instructs the people to “pray to the Lord on its behalf” (Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV). The instructions to pray for the flourishing of the city of Babylon rather than praying for its destruction, would have been just as shocking as his previous instructions.  But Jeremiah tells the people to pray for the flourishing of the city in which they were held captive for the same reason he told them to seek the flourishing of the city – because if it experiences peace and shalom and wholeness, then they too would experience wholeness. 

Often when we face issues or challenges or conflicts at work or school or in our household or community, our prayers are “God, help me!” or “God, get me out of this situation!” And sometimes those prayers are completely appropriate. But Jeremiah’s instructions fit well with Jesus’s instructions to his disciples many years later, to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). 

Jesus urges us to pray for the wellbeing of our enemies that is similar to that of Jeremiah’s: so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). In other words, if you pray that God sends hail to destroy your neighbors crops, watch out, because your crops might get destroyed as well! But if you ask God for just the right amount of sunshine and rain to give your enemy a bountiful harvest, then you will also experience an abundant harvest. (And, as a side benefit, your neighbor will be so busy harvesting his bumper crop of food that he won’t have time to bother you anymore!)

Pray for the Peace of our City

And so, as counteritive as it may seem, both Jesus and Jeremiah instruct us to pray and work for the flourishing and well-being of our enemies – or the city or school or job we find ourselves in – whether we want to be there or not. And that includes praying for our classmates, our bosses, our neighbors, and coworkers – including those who are constantly pestering us, or trying to get ahead of us in line, or who constantly criticize us. Not praying for their destruction, but for their wellbeing. 

Jeremiah’s exhortation to pray for the flourishing of the city, and Jesus’s command to us to pray for our enemies challenges the way we pray. Often when we pray for the needs of our community, we ask for God to bring peace amidst the violence of our city. 

But Jeremiah and Jesus would encourage us not to just pray for our own safety and protection, but that those who are inclined to commit violence would instead have their efforts redirected towards promoting peace and wholeness. To pray that corrupt government officials would not just be found and caught, but that their lives would be transformed, that they could use their powers and influence for good. And that the classmate who steals our cookies at lunch would be so blessed with an abundance of cookies that he would be transformed from someone who steals, into someone who can’t help but share his abundance of cookies with others.

And so let us pray and work and seek the wellbeing of the school we attend, the company we work for, the neighborhood and city where we live. Let us pray and work for the flourishing of all, that we too may flourish. Let us pray and work for flourishing and wholeness, that we too may experience God peace and shalom.  

Amen.

Would You Rather?

September 4th, 2022 homily on Jeremiah 2:4-13; John 7:37-44 by Pastor Galen

One of my kids’ favorite games to play is “Would You Rather?” To play the game, you ask a “Would you rather” question that pairs any two funny, serious, wacky, or thought-provoking scenarios together, such as “Would you rather have hands for feet or feet for hands?” One of my favorite “Would You Rather?” questions is “Would you rather go backward in time and meet your great great great grandparents, or go forward in time and meet your great great great grandchildren?”

Earlier this morning during our Passing of the Peace we answered the question, “Would you rather drink cool fresh water right out of a spring in the mountains, or bottled water that you know has been purified and treated?” As expected there were a variety of responses. Some among us – most likely those of us who love hiking and the outdoors – could probably think of nothing better than drinking cool, refreshing, water straight from a spring in the mountains. Others of us seem to prefer to drink water that we know has been purified and treated, no matter the source.

Spring water is water that naturally bubbles up to the earth’s surface from underneath the ground. Sadly, in our day and age, we do have to be skeptical of water that comes straight from a spring. In fact, the New York State Health Department recommends that “no one should use roadside springs and other uncontrolled, untreated water sources for drinking water…Although the water may look pure and clean, it might not be…A spring might flow above ground, allowing animal waste or chemicals to run into the water.”

And so a lot of work has to go into getting water from springs to the bottles that we buy at the store. And in the end, some would say that our bottled spring water is hardly different from regular tap water, since it is largely treated the same way. On top of that, the energy costs associated with bottling and transporting spring water are astronomical – the oil required to purify, bottle, and transport spring water is equivalent to ¼ of water in the bottle.

Fountain of Living Water

In Bible times, particularly in the land of Israel, water was extremely precious and most often it was even more labor-intensive to obtain. 

In Jeremiah and in Jesus’s day there were 3 ways to obtain water: 

  1. You could build a cistern to collect the rain – basically a huge “rain barrel” carved out of rock. 
  2. You could dig a well. 
  3. By far the best and most attractive option was to gather fresh water straight from a spring. Spring water was the sweetest and best water of all. It bubbled up from the recesses of the earth and continued to flow even when other streams were dried up.

And so the prophet Jeremiah essentially poses a “Would You Rather?” question to the the people that shouldn’t have been very difficult for them to answer at all. Would they rather spend incredible time, and energy and effort digging down into solid rock in order to try to gather the minimal rainwater that fell from the sky – or would they simply turn around and drink water from a fountain of cool refreshing spring water bubbling to the surface?

This was absolutely a no-brainer. Of course if there were a spring of pure unpolluted water bubbling up from the surface of the ground they would absolutely want to collect the water from that, rather than spend all of their energy digging rock cisterns that didn’t even hold the water very well.

And yet, Jeremiah points out, that is essentially what the people had done by turning away from God to worship idols. Jeremiah says that God is like this fountain of living water – cool refreshing spring water, always faithful, always offering abundant life-giving refreshment. And yet throughout the history of the nation of Israel the people had continually turned away from God and were expending all of their time and effort and energy chasing after the gods of the other nations around them. Ironically they actually carved their gods out of stone and precious metals, bowing down and worshiping them, pretending as though those gods were the ones who had delivered them from slavery and brought them into the promised land. 

Chasing Emptiness Leads to Emptiness

No matter how crazy that sounds to us, the reality is that we so often do the same thing. We spend vast amounts of time and energy and effort and money on things that really don’t matter in the long run. We’ve made an idol out of money and stuff and possessions, thinking that having more money and more things will satisfy us in ways that only God can.

When I was growing up it was sneakers. Classmates of mine would spend a lot of money buying really expensive basketball sneakers, that in the end did not make them better athletes at all. (Many of them didn’t even play basketball!) Others of my high school friends would take on afterschool jobs so that they could buy a car, but they had to work so many hours at their afterschool jobs that the only place they had time to drive to was work and school!

And yet adults do the same things. We spend our time and money and energy working to buy bigger and better things, which end up costing us more money in repairs and insurance, and so we have to work even more hours to maintain our new standard of living. And it becomes an ongoing cycle. A “rat race,” it has often been called.

Now work is not bad – in fact, work existed even in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Adam and Eve were tasked with tending to the garden, and God did the work of creation. And it’s not money that’s the problem either – although money can easily become an idol. Rather it’s the “love of money” that is the problem, as we find in 1 Timothy 6:10.

But all of this highlights how easy it is for us to lose sight of what really matters, to get off track, to get stuck in unhealthy patterns and cycles, always trying to climb the ladder of success, without remembering our true purpose in life and the One who is the source of our true satisfaction and fulfillment in life.

Jeremiah called the people of his day to stop trying to dig out cisterns for themselves, “cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13b) and instead return to God, the “fountain of living water” (Jer. 2:13a). And we are invited to do the same.

Drinking from the Fountain

This is why we come together each week, on the first day of the week. We come together for worship on Sunday mornings to reset our priorities, to allow God to recenter and recalibrate our priorities and our focus. We join in worship together at the beginning of each week, before we go to work, or school, before we enter the busyness and the fray, we come together to worship God, to turn away from our broken and cracked cisterns, and to drink from the Fountain of Living Water that will never run dry.

This is also why, on the first Sunday of each month, we celebrate Communion together. We partake of the bread and the cup, and we remember together the sacrifice that Christ made for us, the grace that is freely offered to all. We remind ourselves and one another that there is nothing else that can truly satisfy, nothing else and no one else that can truly bring us peace and joy like Jesus. No amount of money or possessions or friends or relationships or academic diplomas can satisfy us or provide for us or protect us like Jesus can. 

So let us turn away from our broken cisterns, the empty things that we have tried to use to collect some sort of semblance of peace and joy, but have only left us feeling empty. And let us look to Jesus as our source of strength. Let us drink from the Living Fountain that will never run dry, the one who will always satisfy!

Amen.

I Knew You

August 21st, 2022 Jeremiah 1:1-12 by Pastor Galen

Too Young (or Too Old)?

When I was in kindergarten, I could not wait to be in 1st grade. The first graders seemed so big and so tall. When we played with them during recess, it felt like they towered over us. I wanted to be in first grade so that I could be as big as them. When I got to middle school, I wanted to be in high school, and when I got to high school I wanted to be a senior, because they seemed to rule the school and have so many privileges that the rest of us didn’t have. When I went off to college, I started looking forward to graduating and being done with school and entering the “real world.” When I was finally done with school (I thought), that’s when I could finally make a difference in the world.

At some point, of course, it starts to go the other way. The older we get, we start looking at people who are younger than us, and we envy their youthfulness. We look back longingly on the days when we were young and full of energy or in good health, and we wish we could go back in time.

Any of us who have ever counted ourselves out because we thought we were too young or too old can identify with the prophet Jeremiah, who thought that he was too young to be used by God because he was still a boy – or at least a youth. The Hebrew word “na-ar” used here can be translated anywhere from “child” to “young man.” From Jeremiah’s point of view, he was too young to be used by God. 

Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah, the priest, and so no doubt he had the expectation that one day he would indeed serve God – and perhaps even do great things like his father, who may have been the same Hilkiah the high priest who discovered the Book of the Law that had been buried in the temple in Jerusalem for generations (see 2 Chronicles 34:14). One day, when he was older, Jeremiah imagined that he too would enter into the temple and the Holy of Holies where only the high priest could go once and year, and that he too would offer sacrifices on behalf of all the people in the temple. Some day, perhaps he too would lead his people back to God as his father Hilkiah did. But that was a day far far in the future in his mind. From Jeremiah’s perspective, he was way too young.

But one day, while he was still a youth, Jeremiah clearly heard God speaking to him, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). 

As we talked about last week, prophets were not people who looked into a crystal ball and told people their fate – as if there was nothing that could be done about it. Rather, the role of prophets was to speak the words God gave them. Often this did include warnings of what would happen if the people continued down the path they were headed – but it also included promises and blessings if they turned back to God and followed God’s path for their lives. 

And so God was essentially saying to Jeremiah, “I knew you even before you were born, and I have set you apart – I created you – to be my spokesperson to the nations.”

God Knew Us Before We Were Born

Now first of all, let’s just pause here, and point out how amazing it is that the God of the universe knew us even before we were born. Even before we entered into this world, God saw us, and knew us, and God had plans for us. You and I and each and every person on the planet is known and loved by the God of the universe. How amazing is that!

The Psalmist says to God in Psalm 139:13-16:

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

    Wonderful are your works;

that I know very well.

15  My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

    all the days that were formed for me,

    when none of them as yet existed.

God knows us intricately, and had a plan for us even before we were born. God formed us, God created us with a purpose and a plan. 

And so God told Jeremiah that God knew him even before he was born, and that he had placed a special calling on his life, to speak God’s words to the nations. And notice this was not just the kingdoms of Israel and Judah – nations that considered themselves God’s chosen people. Jeremiah had been called to the nations (plural). His ministry would extend far beyond his own people, to nations he had never even met or encountered.

Jeremiah responded the way probably all of us would have responded – by pointing out his own disqualifications – in this case, his youthfulness and lack of experience.

But God was not swayed, saying, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 1:7-8).

The Almond Branch

And then God gives Jeremiah a simple test to prove that Jeremiah was ready to be a prophet and to proclaim God’s words to the nations. God tells Jeremiah to look around and to tell God what he sees. And Jeremiah looks around. Remember, God has just called him to be a prophet to the nations. So perhaps he expects to see the heavens torn open or the moon turned to blood. Perhaps he expects to see a vision of monsters and dragons – indicative of the spiritual battles taking place around him.

But Jeremiah looks around, and all he sees is a simple stick. A simple little branch that had been broken off of an almond tree. Since Jeremiah was a young boy, perhaps this was the sort of stick that Jeremiah had picked up off the ground and had been playing with earlier that day. Perhaps he had been using it as a walking stick, or pretending it was a sword, and had been using it to fight off imaginary enemies. Maybe he had been digging with it in the dirt, or using it to play a game with his friends. 

But after this big pronouncement from God that God was calling Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah looks and all he sees was this simple little stick. I imagine Jeremiah shuffling his feet, and looking down at the ground and saying, “all I see is a stick – the branch of an almond tree. See, that’s why I’m not ready for this prophet stuff – I don’t see anything extraordinary or profound.”

But God says to Jeremiah: ““You have seen well.”” Jeremiah passed the test! And I don’t think that it was just because he saw what God wanted him to see, but because he was willing to proclaim exactly what he saw – no more, and no less. 

You see, a lot of people in Jeremiah’s situation may have been too embarrassed to say that all they saw was a stick. Maybe they would have been inclined to add their own interpretation to what they saw. To add some sort of religious-sounding mumbo jumbo to make it seem as though they were really intelligent or profound. But Jeremiah, in his youthfulness and honesty, was willing to just describe exactly what he saw without adding his own interpretation. And that was, I believe, exactly what God wanted. 

You see, there are a lot of self-proclaimed prophets out there, even today. TV evangelists, Youtube personalities, people who claim to speak for God. Often they’ll start out with a claim that is indisputable – perhaps a passage from Scripture, perhaps something that happened to them, perhaps a dream or vision they had. And it may indeed be true. But then they proceed to add their own interpretation, and that’s where things go off the rails. We see this all the time when so-called prophets try to predict exactly when the world is going to end, or when Jesus will return to take us to heaven – even though Jesus said that “no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen” (Matthew 24:36 NLT). And yet people try anyway. Perhaps they’re just trying to gain followers, or maybe they really think they are speaking for God. But this is not the type of prophet that God desires. God wants people, like Jeremiah, who will speak only what they see or hear from God – no more, or no less. 

(I recognize the danger inherent in speaking from this pulpit – that it may be easy to confuse my words with God’s words. That’s why it’s always good to test everything you hear from the pulpit – or anywhere – with God’s Word revealed in and through the life of Jesus Christ, recorded in Scripture. I pray that anything I say, today or any day, that does not line up with the person and character of Jesus Christ would fall by the wayside, and that only the truth of God revealed through Jesus Christ would come through)/

But this, I believe, is where Jeremiah’s youthfulness and lack of position and prestige were actually an asset in his prophesying. Because Jeremiah was willing to speak exactly what God revealed to him – no more, and now less. He was willing to speak the truth, no matter how obvious it seemed. And later on, as he continued to prophecy throughout his life, he was willing to proclaim God’s words no matter how harsh or controversial his message may have been.

I’m reminded of the little boy in the classic story The Emperor’s New Clothes. Con artists who convinced the emperor that they were fabulous fashionistas who had discovered an incredible new fabric that would appear invisible to anyone who was unintelligent or incompetent. Since no one, including the king, wanted to appear unintelligent, no one was willing to admit that they could not see the clothes the emperor was supposedly wearing, except a little boy in the crowd who declared what everyone knew to be true – that the emperor was in fact not wearing any clothes. Jeremiah was willing, like that little boy, to speak the truth that God revealed to him. No more, and no less. And that was all God required.

And so we learn some rather amazing things from this passage:

  1. We learn that God knew us and had a plan for our lives even before we were born. 
  2. We learn that we are never too young, or old, or inexperienced, or too advanced in years to serve God. God can use us at whatever stage of life we are in.
  3. We learn that, when God moves us to share the Good News with others, that we should seek to share exactly what God has revealed to us through God’s Word – and we are to be careful and clear when adding our own interpretation and opinion.

God’s Promise to Jeremiah – and to Us

But the passage doesn’t end here, with Jeremiah simply passing the test that God gave him. It ends, in fact, with a promise for Jeremiah, and a little bit of a “dad joke” – a fun little play on words – to help Jeremiah remember the promise that God has for him. (As a dad, I love “dad jokes” because they always make my 6-year-old laugh, and my teenagers groan and roll their eyes. Like when my daughters ask if we’re having pasta for dinner, and I say, “It’s a ‘pasta’-bility” rather than possibility). 

You see, in Hebrew, the words “almond branch” and “watch over” sound a lot alike. And so when Jeremiah says that all he sees is the branch of an almond tree, God says, yes, and in the same way I’m going to “almond branch” you as you proclaim my word. This direct translation doesn’t work since “almond branch” sounds nothing like “watch over” in English, but I think Eugene Peterson captures this pun well in his Message paraphrase of the Bible. When God asks Jeremiah what he sees, Jeremiah says, “‘a walking stick—that’s all.’ And God said, ‘Good eyes! I’m sticking with you. I’ll make every word I give you come true’” (Jeremiah 1:11-12, MSG).

And so here in Jeremiah 1, we have not only the proclamation that God knew us before we were born, and the promise that God has a special plan for each and every one of us, that none of us are too young or too old to be used by God, but we also have this promise, that God will stick with us to the end.

And so the next time you go for a hike and pick up a walking stick, or the next time you pick up a stick in your yard, know that God is sticking with you as well. God is watching over you, and that whatever it is that God has called you to do, God will be right by your side, equipping you and empowering you to do God’s will. You are never too young, or too old to be used by God.

May we make ourselves available to God’s purposes in our lives, knowing that God will stick with us until the end. 

Amen.